Kids and Digital Media

Today’s generation of children and adolescents is growing up immersed in media, using platforms that allow kids to both consume and create content, including broadcast and streamed television and movies; sedentary and active video games; social and interactive media that can be creative and engaging for both individuals and groups; and even highly immersive virtual reality.  This media landscape is completely different from what many parents grew up around, so it can be overwhelming at times. 

  • In 1970, children began watching TV regularly at about 4 years of age, whereas today, children begin interacting with digital media as young as 4 months of age.
  • In 2015, most 2-year-olds used mobile devices on a daily basis and the vast majority of 1-year-olds had already used a mobile device.  Preschoolers were already starting to media-multitask in this study (in other words, use 2 or more forms of digital media simultaneously, such as watching TV while using an iPad).
  • Pre-teens and adolescence use a combination of different digital media sources an average of 8-10 hours per day, often in the form of media-multitasking, which has been associated with more attention problems.
  • Three quarters of teenagers own a smartphone, 24% of adolescents describe themselves as “constantly connected” to the Internet,and 50% report feeling “addicted” to their phones, according to research.  Teens who report feeling “addicted” have higher rates of mental health problems as well.
  • Excessive use of digital media, use too close to bedtime, or viewing violent content are associated with worse sleep, higher obesity risk, and worse developmental and academic outcomes. 

This digital media explosion can make a parent feel like he or she can’t keep up, keep track of what kids are doing, or how to create rules about media use, content, and manners. 

Take-Away Tech Principles

There are a number of ways parents can use media together with their young children to encourage family connection, learning, and digital literacy skills, which in the long-term will help us raise children who use media respectfully and creatively:

  • Try to teach children that media use means more than just entertainment, but also connecting (e.g., videochatting – which is fine at any age, although infants need their parents’ help to understand it), creating (e.g., letting the child take photos, make videos or songs, looking up craft ideas), and learning together.  Parents should feel comfortable seeing digital media as a tool to meet their parenting needs, to introduce your kids to learning experiences they otherwise wouldn’t have, and not the thing-in-itself that controls us or our children through its habit-forming design. 
  • Role model being able to unplug during family times, having good social media manners, and talk about why you’re choosing to use the media you consume – this will help you be more mindful at the same time that it teaches your children to be savvy consumers (and hopefully avoid the pitfalls of “fake news”).  If children are frequently seeing you use media as a calm-down strategy or a distraction from mealtimes, they will come to understand that this is how media should be used. 
  • For all family members, create some unplugged spaces and times of day so that both parents and children can play, be bored, or talk without distraction or needing to multi-task.  You are the boss – enforce these spaces!
  • Don’t feel pressure to introduce technology early; kids will catch up when they are older or in school.  But, if parents want to introduce media early, the youngest age we recommend is 18 months, at which age it is essential for parents to play along with the child in order for the child to learn from what they see on the 2-dimensional screen.
  • Don’t trust that just because an app is marketed as “educational,” it truly is!  For little kids, no screen-based activity is ever as educational as talking, singing, or playing with you.

The longer-term goal is to raise kids who see us, their parents, as their guides when they encounter weird stuff online or have negative interactions on social media.  Parents can help their kids learn not to react to negative emotions by spewing out their feelings – sometimes at others’ expense – online, or binge on videos or games.  It is possible to raise kids with good sleep habits, healthy bodies, a variety of interests, and curiosity about the world, who feel good about their learning and their relationships, both on and offline.

Realistic steps parents can take:

Step 1: Create a Family Media Plan

Be proactive.  Talk with your kids about your media use decisions.  Leave enough time in the day to play, study (without the TV on or phone nearby!), talk, or sleep.  Try out this interactive tool created by the AAP to provide an actionable guide for parents to create media rules at home that fit with their values and needs, understanding that a “one size fits all” approach to media rules is not appropriate.  It allows parents to enter their child’s names ages, and then create a media use plan for every family member based on recommended strategies for each age group.  This includes ideas such as creating unplugged zones or times in the house, agreeing on HOW media will be used (e.g., how much personal information should I post online? Which websites are OK?) as well as how parents and kids will communicate about it, good content, and time limits, and device curfews. 

Step 2: Sign Up for the Common Sense Media Newsletter

Common Sense Media is a nonprofit organization committed to helping families navigate the ever-changing media landscape.  On their website you can find reviews of movies, TV shows, apps, games, and books, tips for parents of any age child, ideas for how to break unhealthy technology use habits, and a sign-up for their weekly (and very helpful!) newsletter.

Step 3: Whenever Your Child Tries New Tech, You Try It Too 

Play video games with your kids, check what apps they’re downloading, and play them together or ask them to show them to you (depending on the age).  Try to incorporate videochatting (e.g., Skype or Facetime) with friends or relatives into your usual tech routines.  Using tech together with kids is especially crucial for toddlers 18-36 months, who really don’t learn much from screens without the teaching help of an adult.

Many parents ask, how do you know what is a good app or digital product?  When you play or use technology together with your child, you can see what they see, ask them what they think about it, and gauge whether your child is reacting negatively or positively to the program/game (for example, some kids are always super calm after watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, but rowdy and sassy after watching Pokemon).  Playing an app together is also helpful to see whether you think your child actually is learning something, not just swiping and tapping.  Parents should trust their intuition and not feel bad about uninstalling an app or game, or avoiding a video/TV program that they feel is not a good fit for their child.

Also, skip the ads if you can (e.g., by watching PBS or programs via streaming/On Demand). Shows with lots of ads for unhealthy foods make it harder for your child to learn to make healthy food choices. And if your kids do watch commercial television, watch it with them and teach them what ads are trying to do.

Start a family movie night!  That way you get to watch along, relax, and talk to them about what they are seeing.

Step 4: Get Some new Ideas for Unplugged Play!

Unstructured playtime stimulates creativity, builds attention span and problem-solving skills, and helps children process their emotions. Having conversations and resolving conflicts are important ways of building social skills.  Most of these activities can’t happen effectively on a screen.  But what do we do when our kids are now “bored” with any non-tech activities?  Here are some good resources for unplugged play that will challenge kids and keep them interested:

Early Childhood:

Middle Childhood/Teen Years:

When playing together, also remember to turn off televisions when not in use; this distraction can interfere with parent-child interaction and child focus.

Step 5: Prioritize the Other Healthy Things That Need to Happen Every Day

The AAP recommendations for tweens and teens places a priority on critical health behaviors that are central to child health: sleep, exercise, school work, and socialization. Media use time should be personalized for each child based on fulfillment of these daily health behaviors, which can be achieved through: 1) creating media-free locations and media-free times during the day, 2) having parents be media mentors and be involved in selection as well as amount of media and how it is used in positive ways (build and maintain offline relationships with family and friends, learn and be creative together, engage in discussions about family values and anything upsetting the teen might encounter online, and encourage dialogue about treating others with respect on and offline.)

Discuss with your child or teen that there are both benefits and risks to media.

Benefits include exposure to new ideas and knowledge, increased opportunities for social contact and support, and access to health-promotion messages and information.

Risks include negative health effects on weight and sleep; exposure to inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsafe content and contacts; and compromised privacy.

  • Have ongoing communication with children about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect, avoiding cyberbullying and sexting, being wary of online solicitation, and avoiding communications that can compromise personal privacy and safety.
  • Develop a network of trusted adults, including family members and coaches, who can engage with children on social media and be a trusted ally when they encounter challenges.
  • Discourage entertainment media while they’re doing homework, and make sure children don’t sleep with devices in their bedrooms, including TVs, computers and smartphones.

Additional resources:


Written/reviewed by Jenny Radesky, MD Updated May 2017